LISTEN to our special AFN coverage: Alaska’s Native Voice with Antonia Gonzales
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) was greeted with a standing ovation at the Alaska Federation of Natives, when she addressed the convention Friday.
From subsistence to Native veterans, Sec. Haaland touched on a range of topics.
But one issue on this trip to Alaska will get a lot of her attention.
On Sunday, Sec. Haaland held a listening session in Anchorage on the trauma caused by Native boarding schools.
“We must reckon with the past to address the injustices we still face, because we know that intergenerational trauma connects so much of what hurts us.”
Sec. Haaland has been traveling the country on what she calls a “Road to Healing Tour,” taking testimony on the boarding school era about the damage it caused.
“My grandma used to share stories about this trauma with me about how a priest showed up one day in her village, took her and other children away from her parents and families, and sent them on a train to a Catholic boarding school, when she was only eight years-old.”
Sec. Haaland’s listening session was held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and followed by the raising of a healing totem.
The Heritage Center has been investigating church records to learn more about how Alaska Natives were impacted.
Benjamin Jacuk (Kenaitze Indian Tribal Member), one of the researchers, says his grandfather is a boarding school survivor, which got him interested in learning more.
“The road to healing is going to be a very, a very emotional event, because it’s a lot of people, actually telling their stories. Some maybe before, some for the first time. One thing you know, is never leave people in that space.”
The healing totem is the work of two Haida master carvers – Joe and T.J Young.
An elder developed the concept for the design.
The totem pole depicts mother bear, who is holding two cubs, while the father, in human form, sits above her, embedded in a Raven’s tail.
Two children rest comfortably in Raven’s ear.
The totem raising, which was followed by a potlatch, was open to the public, but the Road to Healing Tour was closed to the general public, to give boarding school survivors and their famiies some privacy.
Education in Alaska has followed a westernized, traditional path since 1784, when the first settlement was formed on Kodiak Island.
Since 1784, education has changed, morphing into a system that doesn’t serve all of the children that it’s meant to.
It has been documented that Indigenous children have been stolen, abused, and forced to assimilate in the current westernized system.
At this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives conference, that story seems to be shifting to a conversation about future hires, curriculum changes, and the potential to bring elders into the classroom.
The conversation started off with a video talking about the history of Indigenous people.
“The story our past tells us, is about an education system imposed on Alaskan’s First People, rather than one built along side of us. ”
For the past year, Cook Inlet has been working on reaching out to multiple communities to see what an ideal educational system would look like.
So far, five tribal communities have agreed to participate in the AFN Educational Compacting Project.
Joel Issak, director of tribal affairs for the U.S. Department of Education, says that the focus of the program and the future of education are these three things.
“The first one is funding. And having the funding go directly from the state to the tribes. The second one is local control and looking at self governance. The third one is around instruction and looking at, ‘How do tribes be that driving force for who is in the classroom teaching our students?'”
After the video was played, speakers said conversations of the future must contain the past, and bringing back traditional beliefs from before 1784.
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